Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell got played. That much seems obvious. When convicted murderer Richard Matt first started putting the moves on the prison tailor-shop supervisor—who has been charged with a felony for allegedly providing Matt and fellow convicted murderer David Sweat with tools they used to break out of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York—he likely saw her less as a paramour than a pawn, someone who could be manipulated into helping them escape. Now Sweat and Matt are still at large, Mitchell is in custody, and the whole country is wondering how this middle-aged woman from upstate could truly have thought “it was love” between her and Matt, as NBC News has reported. (Mitchell has also been accused of having had an inappropriate relationship with Sweat during Sweat’s tenure in the prison tailor shop.)
The furtive prison sex that Mitchell allegedly admitted to having with Matt may have been enjoyable and exciting, but, in retrospect, it probably wasn’t love. Or, at least, we’re loath to think that such a transgressive and unprofessional coupling could be rooted in something real. Is it ever? Emotional and sexual liaisons between inmates and corrections employees are not uncommon in America’s jails and prisons. These relationships are never appropriate, especially given the power imbalance between corrections workers and inmates—but they happen, even though there are laws against them, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they do. Academic research on this tawdry topic indicates that these relationships are indeed most often rooted in manipulation or coercion. But occasionally it’s something more.
How do these sorts of relationships even begin? Many jails and prisons are much less formal places than popular media would have you believe. To a corrections employee, a jail or a prison is a workplace—and just like at your workplace, rules aren’t always strictly followed. In his book Prison Management, Prison Workers, and Prison Theory, Stephen C. McGuinn notes that “absolute rule enforcement [in prison] is probably inappropriate (and unlikely). Context generates situations that warrant departures from codified rule. And autonomy allows prison staff to appear human and reasonable—moved by situational factors.”
Unlike in Frank Darabont movies, where the distance between inmates and staffers is only breached if the inmate is an accountant or possessed of magical healing powers, real-life corrections employees can form working relationships with inmates that sometimes border on the overfamiliar. As Brenda V. Smith observed in a 2012 UCLA Law Review article titled “Uncomfortable Places, Close Spaces,” jails and prisons “are generally staffed by individuals who come from similar, if not the same, economic and social backgrounds as those they are supervising.” There’s often surprisingly little societal distance between inmates and employees, and canny prisoners can recognize this and use it to their benefit.
In a 2003 paper for the interdisciplinary journal Deviant Behavior, Robert Worley, James W. Marquart, and Janet L. Mullings divided inmate “turners”—prisoners who try to forge relationships with corrections staffers in order to extract favors—into three categories. “Exploiters” were the most common category of turner; these inmates initiate relationships with staffers in order to obtain contraband that can be used or resold. One “exploiter” interviewed for the paper described his relationship in colorfully unsentimental terms:
I hooked up with some ole ugly ass boss lady and I told her how great she looked and how she needed a strong dude like me to be her partner. Shit, she fell for that real fast. Next, thing you know I got her bringing in cigarettes by the carton. I was making good money and living good. Hell you give ’em a line a B.S. and you got ’em hooked. We eventually got busted. Ha, she told me how much she loved me. I told her you a fool who was a mule.
“Hell-raisers” are another type of inmate turner, chaos agents who pursue relationships in order to cause trouble and embarrass the prison hierarchy. “I’ve had sex with the wives of two different wardens,” one hell-raising inmate claimed.
I did it ’cause I could. You know what I am saying? Man when they busted me for that, all hell broke loose. It was hilarious. Yeah, I lost my outside trusty job but it was worth it ’cause I embarrassed the shit out of that warden and his family. I still can’t stop laughing ’bout it.
But just as common as the hell-raisers were the “heart-breakers,” inmates who were actually seeking long-term relationships and often claimed to actually love the staffers with whom they had become involved. These turners kept their relationships a secret, and some planned to build a future with their lovers upon release. These played out like traditional romantic relationships, with physical intimacy preceded by long periods of courtship. One heart-breaker described how he and a female corrections officer “would just stay up all night talking, even though I was supposed to be cleaning the wing and she was supposed to be guarding the other inmates.”
Jails and prisons are incredibly stressful, negative environments, and female corrections employees especially can find them intimidating or uncomfortable places to work. In a fascinating Ph.D. dissertation from 2013 titled “A Portrait of Boundary Violations,” a former Colorado prison warden named Susan J. Jones conducted extensive interviews with four female ex-corrections employees who had engaged in romantic relationships with inmates. Among other things, Jones found that these employees felt isolated in their workplaces and they found in their inmate relationships a source of kindness and insulation that they otherwise lacked.
Jones describes how the male inmates by whom female corrections employees are surrounded are physically stronger than them and can take great joy in insulting, harassing, flashing, or masturbating at them. Their male co-workers can be emotionally distant and unsympathetic to their struggles. One corrections officer whom Jones profiled, “Sarah,” was verbally abused by inmates—to the complete disinterest of her male shift commander—until she began a relationship with an inmate, “Mike,” a high-ranking gang member whom she had known during her childhood. “The verbal abuse that was so prevalent when she was making rounds in the yard stopped,” writes Jones. “Not one inmate ever again said anything to her that was offensive while she was making rounds. It was obvious that Mike had taken care of the situation, and Sarah believes: ‘Mike came to my aid. He knew what they were saying, we talked about it, and he took care of it.’ ”
In the Clinton Correctional Facility case, Mitchell allegedly brought Matt and Sweat hacksaw blades, chisels, and other tools, which would seem to put their relationship in the exploiter category. The post-escape coverage of her alleged relationship with the two men has certainly embarrassed the prison and the New York state penal system, which is the hell-raiser’s desired outcome. But we don’t know anything about what sort of tenderness Matt and Sweat showed Mitchell, and whether that helped compensate for what was lacking elsewhere in her life. One of the women profiled by Susan J. Jones began a relationship with an inmate at least partially based on the well-written poems he left her, which seems similar to how Matt apparently painted a picture for Mitchell. Matt and Sweat certainly benefitted from their relationship with Mitchell, but we shouldn’t assume Mitchell didn’t get anything out of it either—that it wasn’t empowering or affirming in some real way. And let’s not automatically assume that the moments they shared were entirely manipulative.
Prisons can be very isolating places, and emotions are complicated things. It’s certainly plausible that even though they were using Mitchell in order to aid their escape, Matt and Sweat likewise were affected by the presumed tenderness she showed them in a brutal, grinding environment. Based on the academic literature, it’s not entirely implausible that they really were looking forward to running off with her, that they felt heartbroken when she didn’t appear after they emerged from that Dannemora manhole more than two weeks ago. Wherever they are, maybe the wind cries “Tillie” with every step they take.